If you’ve got a travel adventure to Latin America lined up in the future, then all of the incredible food you’re going to eat while you’re out here is going to blow your mind. Food is an important part of Latin American life, and trying local, authentic dishes will help you experience and connect with the culture of whichever countries you’re visiting. But what should you try first if you’re a newbie to this region?
If you’ve never been to Central or South America before, then you might not know what to expect food-wise, aside from well-known classics such as Argentinian steaks or Mexican burritos.
Luckily for you, the food in Latin America is incredible, varied and delicious — using distinctive spices, fresh ingredients — expect to encounter all sorts of culinary treats and surprises during your travels.
In the guide below, we’ll be covering the most popular and the most delicious dishes to try when you’re visiting Latin America for the first time — read on for some food for thought:
1. Peruvian ceviche
Ceviche is a traditional Peruvian delicacy that is famous the world over, and once you try it, you’ll understand why. This delicious fish and seafood dish is fresh and sharp — containing flavors you won’t see around too much.
Ceviche can freak out people who are more squeamish and have heard that it contains raw fish and seafood.
However, it’s probably more correct to say that the fish is cured, rather than raw: it’s marinated in “tiger’s milk” (leche de tigre) which contains citrus juices like lemon and lime. These acidity juices basically “cook” the fish, as well as giving it a distinctive, incredible flavor. The dish is then finished off with chili, onions, and cilantro for another big flavor hit.
There’s no better place to eat ceviche than the Peruvian coast where the seafood is freshly caught and ridiculously cheap. We recommend eating as much as you can before you go, because you will pine for this dish a lot once you’ve come back home.
2. Costa Rican gallo pinto
Costa Rica is home to some great food: fresh seafood, delicious tropical fruit, comforting soups and more… But if you’re going to try any dish while you’re visiting this Central American paradise, then it has to be gallo pinto.
Regarded by many as the national dish of Costa Rica, gallo pinto features rice and beans, a classic Costa Rican combination. Red peppers, onions, and cilantro are also added to the mix, as are eggs, cheese, plantain, and salsa.
All of these colorful ingredients combined make the dish appear speckled — hence the name of “painted rooster.”
Gallo pinto is a traditional breakfast dish — something a bit different to start your day — and can be found everywhere, from cafes to Costa Rica family hotels, to restaurants.
3. Mexico: chilaquiles
When someone asks you to think of Mexican food, it’s not hard. Burritos, tacos, and enchiladas are just a few of popular Mexican dishes that have gone global. And when you get to Mexico, you’ll be able to sample the real deal!
While you’re eating your way through Mexico, there’s one delicious dish in particular that you have to try: chilaquiles.
Chilaquiles is made by slicing tortillas into strips and deep-frying them to make a base layer of chips. Next, a healthy dollop of salsa and mole sauce is added, and then the dish is finished off with chicken, cheese, sour cream, and egg (and probably refried beans on the side).
Chilaquiles is generally eaten for breakfast or brunch, and it’s a fantastic hangover cure if you’ve been enjoying Mexico’s nightlife a bit too much (we get it, salsa-dancing in clubs and tequila are a fun but deadly combo).
4. Colombian empanadas
Just about every country in Latin America has its own version of the empanada, and it’s amazing to see — and try — each unique take on this delicious snack.
Depending on where you are, empanadas can be baked or fried, feature sweet or savory fillings, and be made from all sorts of doughs, from corn to flakey pastry, to yucca and even plantain.
Of course, the title of “best empanada” is hotly contested between each country, but Colombian empanadas have to be up there.
Empanadas in Colombia tend to be small and fried, made with a corn flour base that turns slightly crispy when fried — our mouths are watering already. The filling is normally shredded beef, chicken or pork, with some potato and onion — all perfectly seasoned. They are then served with ají picante: a tasty hot sauce made with habanero peppers, onion, and cilantro.
5. Brazilian feijoada
Feijoada is the national dish of Brazil, and it’s one that you have to try while you’re there. This tasty South American treat is a wholesome stew made of black beans (feijão) and meat — the ultimate comfort food.
Feijoada is normally made with pork (usually a combination of cuts as well as chorizo or sausages), but it can incorporate beef too. It is then served with rice, vegetables and a sprinkle of farofa (toasted cassava flour).
Whichever variation you try, you’re in for a treat. Don’t forget to drink a caipirinha with it too for the full Brazilian experience! This national cocktail is made with cachaça (a sugar cane spirit), lime, sugar, and lots of ice and is drunk everywhere.
6. Venezuelan arepas
Arepas are a staple in Venezuela: super simple but delicious. They’re eaten by pretty much everyone and can be found everywhere — from street food carts and market stalls to restaurants and bars.
Arepas are essentially a griddle-fried corn cake that is made from a special corn flour. You then stuff the arepa with whatever you fancy as a filling: shredded beef, chicken, cheese, avocado, beans… it’s up to you! So it’s sort of like a burger bun but made with cornbread instead.
This tasty and cheap Venezuelan dish can be enjoyed throughout the day too — they can be eaten for breakfast, as a snack, as a main dish or side. So what are you waiting for? Get your hands on an arepa and you won’t regret it.
7. Argentinian choripan
Ah, Argentina. If you’re a meat lover, then welcome to paradise. Argentina is home to arguably the best barbecue culture/tradition in the world — known as asado.
An asado features huge platters of meats, from morcilla (blood sausages) and sweetmeats to hot dogs, ribs, steaks, and larger cuts — all of which are placed on parrillas (grills) over hot coals to create a carnivore’s feast.
While there will be countless meaty treats that will take your fancy at an Argentinian asado, there is one that you have to try: choripan.
Choripan is simple but beautiful. Essentially just a sausage sandwich, it consists of a juicy, fatty chorizo (the “chori”), slapped into a crusty bread (the “pan”). A very generous amount of mouth-watering chimichurri is slathered on top to create one of the most beautiful sandwiches in the world. Trust us.
So there you have it: a beginner’s guide to Latin American food. There are countless different things to taste while you’re out there, but try these seven delicious dishes and you won’t regret it.